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Zoo Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In 1924, Yuriy Tynyanov, a Formalist critic, said of Viktor Shklovsky’s Zoo: Or, Letters Not About Love: “The book is interesting in that a single emotional core provides the basis for a novel, and a feuilleton, and a scholarly paper.” The comment covers the contents of this unusual mix of a novel. Shklovsky, an unwilling Russian emigre in Berlin in 1922, uses his own painful experience of unrequited love for Elsa Triolet, the estranged Russian wife of a Frenchman, as the core of a novel expressing his sense of dislocation in the West and his views on literature and his literary comrades.

The novel is arranged as a series of letters to Elsa (Alya is her Russian nickname.) A second subtitle Shklovsky uses, “The Third Heloise,” refers to the stories of the love of Heloise and Abelard in the Middle Ages and of the lovers in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise (1761). In both these stories, the lovers are devoted to each other; they are frustrated by outside forces. The third Heloise is not so satisfactory a beloved; Shklovsky’s love is frustrated by the woman herself. She cannot love him in return. While she grants him the opportunity to write to her (and occasionally to telephone), she makes the stipulation that he must not write or speak about love.

This prohibition motivates the actual content of most of the letters: Shklovsky’s ideas about literature and his sketches of Russians in the Berlin literary scene. The result is a tale of a barely suppressed but strong love for a woman of whom the lover himself rather disapproves. The story serves as a structural line for matters that engage him perhaps even more seriously: the world of literature and literary theory. Yet each of these topics somehow returns to the topic of love.

The first edition of the novel includes twenty-nine letters. (Five letters were added in later editions, while other letters were subsequently omitted.) Seven of the twenty-nine are from Elsa. (She actually wrote them, later expanding the one on Tahiti into a book of her own.) The rest are by Shklovsky, and they are autobiographical, representing his feelings and thoughts during this painful but productive year in Germany. They include an elegy for Velimir Khlebnikov, a highly experimental poet friend of his; letters to his literary friends at home, urging them to work; scenes of Berlin life, especially in contrast to the war, revolution, and civil war he has just lived through at home; his own literary ideas; responses to Elsa’s letters; and occasional violations of her prohibition. Other letters describe Aleksei Remizov, the publisher Zinovyi Grzhebin, Andrey Bely, Aleksandr Blok, Leo Tolstoy, Boris Pasternak, Stendhal, Fyodor Dostoevski, Ilya Ehrenburg, and others. He is always interested in their ideas on literary technique as well as in catching, in words, their images as human beings.

The letters are highly metaphorical. It is as if he compares everything and everyone he sees to the inner compulsion of his love. The metaphors are part of his new theory and are thus fresh and full of new insight.

For example, in letter 4, the elegy for Khlebnikov, Shklovsky writes about the weather, linking it first to politics and then to love. He says that he hates cold weather, that Peter betrayed Christ because he wanted to warm himself at a fire and got caught up in the public opinion around the fire. Russia, he says, is cold; it (and he) betrayed Khlebnikov, who was generous and idealistic, like Christ himself. He remembers that Khlebnikov, too, loved a woman who did not respond to him. He says, ironically, that the soldiers who killed Christ and the state which let Khlebnikov go without a place to lay his head were not responsible; they “did not understand Aramaic.” In short, ordinary people do not understand poets or what poets understand. They are cold, and their desire to warm themselves makes them lack compassion. The soldiers who killed Christ were like the nails, not responsible for the...

(The entire section is 1,325 words.)